Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dirty Socks and Purple Stars

In which we read somewhat concerning the languages of love, the fierceness and generosity of cats, and the kindness of children.

How does one say "I love you?"

I've been thinking about that lately, about the ways each of us says, "I love you." I've been thinking, too, about how and when we receive that message. A cat doesn't say "I love you" in the same language a dog does. Mandarin and Swahili don't use the same sounds to deliver the same message.

Do we always hear the message when it comes our way? Do our own messages of "I love you" always get through?

It's an amazing and humbling thing when your children grow up and start recommending literature - books and movies - to you. When they are young, we expend so much effort on funneling to them the best messages we have to offer.

"Children ought to be provided with property and resources of a kind that could swim with them even out of a shipwreck." ~~Vitruvius, "Architecture.

How diligently we try to provide them with those resources. We peddle ideas, books and music and art. We try to provide a civilizing influence. We try to teach, by word and our own actions, compassion and respect, hope, perhaps faith. How often and how badly we bungle our efforts. But we try. At least, a good many of us do. We try to gather up the best  we have,the best that we are, and put it into the hands that will craft the future.

"Let us then, before we die," wrote historian Will Durant, "gather up our heritage and offer it to our children." 

How fascinating, and how humbling, when those bottles we sent so hopefully out to sea, begin to come back to us, filled with new wonders.

Some time ago, one of my daughters recommended a book to me. It was about the different languages we each use to communicate love. "Mom," she said, "the guy who wrote it is an evangelical type. His tone is going to annoy you. But the book's worth reading, if you can just get past how he says things and concentrate on what he's trying to say."

Well, I confess I was intrigued, both by her insight into what irritates me, and by the topic. It was during one of the really poor times in my life, with no money in the budget to buy books at all. Nevertheless, I cobbled together my change and hied me off to Borders Books with a notepad and pen. I found the book, ordered a coffee, and settled in to read.

The book is  "The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts" by Gary Chapman. Her assessment was astute; I did indeed find the author's tone infuriating. I ground my teeth and plowed on, reading despite the urge to strangle the author. Eventually the tone faded to the back of my attention, as I mulled over the ideas being presented.

I found it very useful and intriguing, a really clever and insightful model for human communication. I've recently passed it on, years later now, recommending it in my turn to someone I thought might find it useful.

The gist of the theory is that we communicate differently. (Duh!) I may be spending all my energy communicating to the spousal unit how much I love him, but if he's not hearing, if he's not receiving the message, he's not feeling all that love I'm sending. It's been helpful to me to begin to understand this, in so many more contexts than I can go into here. Of course, there was the increased effectiveness of communication with the spousal unit. His primary love language turns out to be touch. A back rub communicates to him far more clearly "I love you," than does say, a lavishly cooked meal or an expensive gift. (A good thing for me, since I have no money and hate to cook!) On the other hand, my primary love language is split pretty much equally between service and praise. Last summer, the spousal unit spent all day one Saturday, digging seventy-five holes for me, helping me plant  blackberry and wild plum, elderberry and dogwood. I couldn't have completed the task in one day without him. This act of service meant more to me than the most expensive gift he could have bought. It was a splendid birthday present; I still get a warm glow inside, thinking of it. But he wouldn't have known that service was more important to me than, say, having money spent on me, unless we had taken the time to consider how we each receive the message:  "I love you."

I try to put this into play with the cats as well, both with the colony and with our four slug-a-bed housecats. How do the cats say I love you? What can I do that shows them I love them?

 Here's one example. The spousal unit was grieving that the house cats never let him pet them, but aways let me. "Always" and "never" are dangerous words, and are not quite accurate here. Still, I understood what he meant. I do, far more often than he, get pets from the kitties when I reach out to stroke them. They love him just as dearly; they rub on his legs, run to greet him with tails up, showing happiness. But let him reach toward them and they dodge away, just out of reach. Curious.

What was going on? Inspired by  Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees, I began to watch carefully. What exactly was going on when each of us reached out to pet one of the cats? It didn't take long to figure out. I would reach toward the cat with the back of my hand, my fingers pointed toward myself. The spousal unit was reaching for the cats with the palm of his hand, fingers pointed toward the cat, in a grasping motion. All we could figure was that, to the cats, this signalled an agressive move. All four of our housecats are rescued ferals. Being grasped by a human was perhaps something they were taught very young to avoid. When he changed the way he reaches for them, they universally, now accept his pets. We had learned something about their love language.

And what of their love language to us? Where cats are concerned, one thing that springs quickly to mind as a display of love is their habit of bringing dead mice to their humans. As most people who live with cats know, this is a real sign of love and affection. The cat has hunted; he has made a kill and acquired food. He brings this food home to his family: what a fabulous hunter he is! What a great provider!

I remember the first time a cat presented me proudly with a kill. I was seventeen; his name was Timmy. I had found him half dead, frozen in the snow. He wasn't moving, barely even alive. I  cut class and took him to the vet. He was a beautiful yellow striped tiger of a fellow. He recovered, and we became the dearest of friends. He actually brought a mouse in from the yard and laid it at my feet, where I sat on the couch, reading.

Fortunately, I knew enough not to scream and scold. I praised  him and petted him. He was so proud! I scooped up the mouse in a paper towel, making gnomming noises as I disposed of it in the trash. Timmy preened like a prince. What a fierce beast he was!

Bobby of the Golden Eyes, of whom you have read  before, would, I am told, in the days before he lived with me, bring mice and rabbits and line them up on the front porch, neatly, in a long row, for the delectation of his human family.

Now, with four housecats and a feral colony of eight living on the lot, along with Hades the Guardian Ghost, we don't get many mice in my house. No self-respecting mouse comes near. We do occasionally, once or twice a year, get the foolish stray. This serves to let the cats keep their hunting skills honed. I half believe the few mice who do come are adolescent males. I can just see them, gathered around the cheese, playing the mouse equivalent of Mumblety peg or Russian Roulette. And then, some mouse lad saying to another, "Hey, I DARE you....."

So with few mice available as trophies, what do our cats bring us by way of treats, to display their hunting skills and to express  their love? Well, they bring dirty socks.

Yes, Gentle Reader, it's true.  I'm not quite sure what is the connection between socks and mice. It may perhaps be scent. Nevertheless, countless mornings I wake up, and some considerate feline has hunted from the laundry basket one of yesterday's socks, placing it neatly next to my pillow. Now, the prey is arranged with great care, never just dropped in a heap. No, it is carefully stretched, full length, so I may see and appreciate the full glory of the dead and dirty sock. What an epic battle must have ensued in its capture. I'm always careful to praise the cats for their great generosity, for their fierceness in battle.

Occasionally, a sock is deemed by the cats to be unworthy. We have indeed found socks placed carefully in the litter box, covered up with all due diligence. We're not quite sure what to make of that. Mysterious indeed are the ways of Cat!

This bit of wisdom I have learned from cats:  examine even the smallest gift most carefully, accept it graciously, cherish it dearly. For gifts come from the heart, and so, it is a piece of the heart that is being given, always, in the guise of a gift. One of my greatest treasures is a small piece of paper, a page torn from a child's colouring book. Something of no great note in the eyes of the world. And yet it is far more than it seems. It carries a young girl's love.

When I first moved to the City, I left three young people behind me, on the plains of Texas, under her stars. I left them in the care of their father, and of their grandparents. They were teenagers all; they were "old enough" for me to make the move. Old enough! As if we are ever old enough.

"All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair." ~~Mitch Albom, "The Five People You Meet In Heaven"

This may be true, but how we sorrow, how we grieve, we parents, over our parts in smudging or cracking that beautiful glass, over our clumsiness, our ignorance, our bad judgement. What a miracle it is that children, in their resilience, find it in their souls to keep on loving us.

One of the children, talking with me on the phone, after the move, asked if I liked the City, if I didn't miss the wildness, the open spaces of West Texas. God gave me the wisdom to hear the real question. I told her how much I missed her. How different it was, how odd it was, not to see her.

How strange it is when our children, whose scrapes and boo boos we have kissed and bandaged throughout the long years, begin to comfort us in their turn. "It's alright, Mom," she told me. "We can talk on the phone whenever you want."

But still, she wanted to know about the City. Was it better than West Texas? Was there anything, besides the three of them, that I missed? Or was the City perfect, a paradise.

I missed the stars, I told her. The stars of the plains are indescribable to anyone who has never experienced them. The night sky fills the field of vision; the earth is dark, a great sleeping and shaggy beast, nondescript, taking up less than a quarter of what the eye sees. The rest is sky, a great dark dome awash with points of light, stars so close together as to obscure the blackness between them, the dome so close as to make one imagine she can reach up, scoop a handfull of stars, like diamonds, and carry them home. There is nothing like it in the City. The lights of the City, so close, so intruding, obscure the night sky, obscure the stars. Stand in the City at night; look up, look out  your window. On a clear night you may see a star, perhaps even two. But it is nothing compared the glory that is the night sky in Texas.

A few days later, after this conversation, a small brown envelope came in the mail. It contained a page torn clumsily from a child's colouring book, its edges ragged. I unfolded the paper; it was Aladdin and Jasmine, flying together on their magic carpet through the night sky. It was a sky glorious with stars. Stars and stars and more stars had been drawn in by hand, until the page was thick with them. Purple stars, hundreds of them, darwn carefully with a purple crayon. A pink post-it note was attached.

"To Mom," it read. "So you'll always have stars."

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats and philosophy. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.


  1. Better your socks than your shoes ...

  2. I do miss the stars in Texas very much. Last time I went home, even though it was 30 degrees outside, I laid out in our back yard under a blanket in as many layers as I could and just looking into the beautiful sky.

  3. Hi! Roberta shared your blog with me and I love it. I tend to constantly think and consider and analyze (my husband would call that "over-thinking, but I think it's one of my best qualities!)," so this post really resonated with me.

    I look forward to following your blog! I think you'll like the following post from my blog -- check it out:

  4. @ Ashley: I am envious. I haven't seen the Texas stars in far, FAR too long. Have you ever lain on the ground, looking up into the stars for so long that your perception does this funny little wiggle dance, and it suddenly feels as if you're floating above a sea of stars? Gives me a shiver, remembering.

  5. @ Angie: What a wonderful blog you write! And such fabulous pictures of your beautiful fur friends. I'm looking forward to spending the evening browsing your archives. Fun fun!